In 2015, the state of Illinois developed a strategy to reduce nutrient runoff that went into the state’s waters — the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS). This plan sought to reduce nitrate-nitrogen (N) loads by 15% and phosphorus (P) loads by 25% by 2025. Forty-one percent of nutrient runoff in Illinois comes from the agriculture industry, the largest industry in the state of Illinois. In 2019, 1.4 million acres of cover crops were planted in Illinois, representing a 135% increase from 2011. Illinois growers also reported that 11.2 million acres of cropland received reduced P fertilizer application rates in 2019 compared to 2011.

The 2025 deadline looms closer with every passing day, and conservation experts are finding that Illinois growers are lagging behind in their efforts to meet the goals outlined in the strategy. Soil erosion was maintained or reduced at or below tolerable soil loss on 60,283 cropland acres. Between 2019-2020, 67,499 tons of soil were saved — an estimated 1,100 semi-trailer loads of sediment did not reach Illinois waterways. An estimated 21,535 lbs. of nitrate-N and 10,170 total lbs. of P were reduced in 2019-2020.

The NLRS notes that unprecedented rainfall in 2019 increased the amount of water flow in Illinois waterways. A larger volume of water means more nitrate-N and P in the water.

Lack of awareness is not a problem. A survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) found that 85% of Illinois growers knew about cover crops — a proven method for helping to reduce nutrient runoff and soil erosion, according to USDA NRCS.

A lack of funding is identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as one reason why Illinois growers are not meeting these benchmarks. Shifting climate conditions are another contributing factor.

State-based funding for conservation programs has been inconsistent, with a budget impasse from 2015-2017 putting mounting strain on growers, as implementing conservation practices like cover crops and no-till is being done voluntarily.

Proposed legislation currently being considered would extend and increase funding for the state’s Partners for Conservation fund through fiscal year 2027, which would mean those funds could help meet the NLRS goals. The proposal would gradually increase funding from $18 million to $25 million per year, investing more than $130 million over the next 6 years.

With more financial incentives in place, it will remove the perception that cover crops are taking away from farm income without bringing in additional income. If more Illinois growers were incentivized to use cover crops and other conservation practices, the state’s agriculture industry would be closer to achieving their benchmarks for reducing nutrient loads in waterways.